Would You Like Credit With That Internship?

Yana Paskova for The Chronicle

Angad Singh (right), an NYU senior, has held three internships. He wouldn't choose to work for credit, he says, but "if there's no other way to get the internship, then you won't be able to get the experience."
May 09, 2010

Debra Gelinas's students want college credit for their internships. Actually, they need it. Companies often insist on credit so that interns might legally qualify as unpaid trainees. So eager students turn to Ms. Gelinas, director of experiential learning at Berklee College of Music, in Boston.

Berklee values practical experience and offers an internship-based course, but students, who intern for record companies and film scorers, balk at the tuition, especially over the summer. So Ms. Gelinas developed a certificate program, a sort of course-lite: fewer assignments, no credit, no fee.

"It was a way to create more opportunity for students," she says. Berklee started the program this semester, employers seemed satisfied, and 36 students enrolled. More than 50 have signed up for the summer already.

Unpaid internships sparked national attention this spring, with anecdotal evidence of their creep across the down economy, and last month the federal government clarified the criteria for their compliance with labor law.

The question of legality leaves colleges in a peculiar position. Internships have never been so extensively tied to higher education. Now, under common interpretations of the law, many have to be.

Companies often see academic credit as substitute compensation that qualifies interns as legally unpaid trainees and keeps them on their colleges' liability insurance. Advertisements specify: "Candidates must be able to receive academic credit."

That makes some campus officials bristle. "What they're saying is holding the institution hostage," says Kathy L. Sims, director of career services at the University of California at Los Angeles. Employers don't know colleges' academic standards, she says. "It's really not their call whether their experience is creditworthy."

Colleges have dealt with that quandary in various ways. Some, especially those with traditions of experiential learning, vet and monitor internships, enrolling students in courses designed to complement their real-world work. Others let professors sponsor independent studies based on internships. More and more have devised some form of noncredit recognition to try to satisfy employers without altering academic philosophies or making students pay tuition to work free.

Internship supervisors at colleges say they are trying to help. Sure, they wish all companies paid interns. But they figure the best they can do is to grant students the academic recognition employers require and try to run quality control on their experiences.

College presidents defended that role last month in a letter asking the U.S. Department of Labor to leave internships to them. "Our institutions take great pains to ensure students are placed in secure and productive environments that further their education," it said.

At the same time, credit and other formal recognition by colleges perpetuate unpaid internships, which are more accessible to wealthier students, says Richard Bottner, president of Intern Bridge, a company that works with students and employers. "Colleges are complicit in this whole thing, whether they want to admit it or not."

'Meaningful Learning'

Faculty and staff members see themselves not as accomplices but gatekeepers. In weighing an internship for credit, they may ask an employer to change some duties or reject a position altogether. Diligence and strictness vary from campus to campus, but most decisions hinge on perceived substance.

"We want to make sure ... that the company is not just looking for cheap or free labor," says Elizabeth M. Daley, dean of the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. "Of course they're all looking for that on some level. But we want a company that's committed to help a student learn something as well."

American University evaluates internships quantitatively: To get credit, they must be "85-percent substantive." Asking employers for written job descriptions helps to ensure more thoughtfully structured experiences than, What is there for the intern today?, says Francine Blume, director of experiential education in American's career center.

Internships, like all jobs, inevitably involve some drudgery, she says, but professors supervising independent studies expect academic rigor, and often assign students policy briefs. "If what they're doing is answering the telephone," Ms. Blume says, "they're not going to be able to complete the assignment."

Many colleges draft learning agreements to be signed by campus-based supervisors, internship bosses, and students. The University of Texas at Austin's College of Liberal Arts requires employers to assign "meaningful learning tasks" to students seeking internship credit. Messiah College, in Grantham, Pa., insists on duties that are "career-related, progressive, and challenging."

Janet Nepkie visits her students' internship sites to make sure. Ms. Nepkie, a professor of music and music industry at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, typically stays for an hour and a half at, for example, a record label in Manhattan. "I do my best to make the on-site supervisor feel like we are working in partnership," she says.

Occasionally employers aren't so collaborative. When they give interns only tedious tasks, Krissi Geary-Boehm gets on the phone. Ms. Geary-Boehm, coordinator of internships and placement in the College of Mass Communications and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, is also a lawyer. "I talk to the company and try to get them back on track about making this an educational opportunity for the student," she says. No change and she will pull out an intern and cross the employer off her list: "We simply blackball them."

But internships are generally valuable for students, administrators say. The complementary courses involve journals, essays, oral presentations, or work portfolios. Independent studies lean toward academics; most courses are more like career seminars.

Angad Singh, a senior studying film and television at New York University, is now earning credit for his third internship. He spends one day a week at a film-development company, reading screenplays and novels submitted by agents, and he fulfills the university's credit requirement easily enough. "The course is pretty much, you meet with the internship coordinator, and then you hand in your hour sheet and a questionnaire at the end," he says. (NYU's Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film and Television also asks students to prepare a résumé and answer a few essay questions online over the course of the semester.)

Mr. Singh probably wouldn't choose to work for academic credit, he says, but he does. "If there's no other way to get the internship, then you won't be able to get the experience," he says. "It's just one of the compromises you have to make."

The Kanbar Institute awards one credit for every 75 hours of a student's internship; each college or school has its own ratio and formula. George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, for example, grants one credit for every 10 pages a student writes in an internship-based independent study. Southern Illinois tries to give at least six credits for summer internships because students want to apply their financial aid. Oneonta goes the other way, classifying a fraction of a student's work hours as instruction and the rest as field experience to make internships only a single credit, or $207 of in-state tuition.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools doesn't specifically examine internship courses in its accreditation process, but by its standards, an institution must have a "defined and published policy for evaluating, awarding, and accepting credit ... for experiential learning." That policy, the association says, must guarantee that "course work and learning outcomes are at the collegiate level and comparable to the institution's own degree programs."

Not Credit, Exactly

When colleges deny credit, or students don't want to pay for it, there are workarounds. Some students ask professors to write letters about phony independent studies. Some departments let students with summer internships register in the fall, when they're paying tuition anyway. Students can also enroll in work-experience courses at community colleges—or pay $8,000 to the University of Dreams, a company that places them in internships complete with contract credit from Menlo College, in Atherton, Calif.

Bowdoin College had no formal path to internship credit, and professors and administrators worried that students were missing out. Still, they agreed that interns didn't deserve academic credit. So in March the college approved the noncredit Summer Internship Transcript Notation Policy. "We think this is a formula that allows us to help without sacrificing academic credibility," Henry C.W. Laurence, an associate professor of government and Asian studies, told the student newspaper at the time.

The College of Charleston sends letters to employers saying that students' internships will be "formally supervised, recognized, and evaluated by the college." The letters don't mention that the internship "certificate" won't bear credit or appear on a student's transcript.

Are employers satisfied? "It really depends," says Lindsey R. Gillen, internship coordinator in the college's career center. Larger corporations usually are not. They insist on credit and will not give the students internships; this year MTV didn't. But for local media companies at least, the certificate seems to suffice.

At Bates College, the game is up. "We're quite adamant about our refusal to play along," says James W. Hughes, a professor of economics. As chairman of the department eight years ago, he got dozens of calls from students, parents, and employers asking for credit for unpaid internships, mainly in the financial industry. "Why is it that we have to evaluate this experience," he says, "just so some multibillion-dollar bank can avoid paying $7.50 an hour?"

Mr. Hughes feels bad that his students may have fewer options without Bates credit or transcript notation, but many of them pursue paid internships, he says, and most still find good jobs. He'd rather put up with a little frustration than enable companies to give unpaid internships. "It sends a terrible message ethically to students," he says. "If there's a law you don't like, make up a way to skirt it."

Legal Standards

But the law is vague, and arguably antiquated. In the for-profit sector, guidelines for legally unpaid internships come from a 1947 U.S. Supreme Court case involving a weeklong training for prospective railroad brakemen. "People who agree to work for their own benefit on the premises of another are not employees," wrote Justice Hugo L. Black. "Otherwise, all students would be employees of the school or college they attended, and as such entitled to receive minimum wages."

Last month the U.S. Department of Labor clarified the educational criteria for unpaid internships at private companies (public agencies and nonprofit organizations can legally classify interns as volunteers). The positions should be "structured around a classroom or academic experience," the guidelines say. "This often occurs where a college or university exercises oversight over the internship program and provides educational credit." Also: If "the intern performs no or minimal work, the activity is more likely to be viewed as a bona fide education experience."

Campus officials immediately worried that employers, fearing legal risk, would cancel the internships that advance students' careers. Ms. Geary-Boehm, of Southern Illinois, saw plenty of skittishness among companies: "Everybody's saying, 'I have to talk to my lawyer and my tax people because we may not be taking interns this year.'"

However, in an informal poll of about 100 colleges done by Messiah College, 87 percent said employers were not concerned. American and Boise State Universities planned to reach out to companies with reassurances that educationally structured, unpaid internships are still OK.

Legal experts differ on whether academic credit is a bright line. If students get credit, says Catherine K. Ruckelshaus, legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project, "it's almost always going to be proper that it's an unpaid internship." David C. Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University Law School who has studied the employment rights of interns, isn't so sure. "Schools and partnering private-sector internship hosts should evaluate their programs closely" against Labor Department guidelines, he wrote in an e-mail message.

The department doesn't plan to offer any more general guidance but will investigate any complaints or leads. "The wage-and-hour division is necessarily concerned that interns work under conditions that are in compliance with federal law," Nancy J. Leppink, deputy administrator of that division, said in a written statement.

But who's going to complain? Colleges worry about keeping employers in their good graces, to preserve opportunities for students, who, in turn, worry about their professional futures. As for companies, they may now tighten interns' credit requirement. "Our HR department actually verifies each student's credentials," says Ilana Lee, an online producer and intern supervisor at Vevo, a music-and-entertainment Web site.

Recent scrutiny will probably intensify discussions between colleges and employers. Campus officials are writing a definition of "internship" and trying, as in the presidents' letter, to defend their gatekeeping role. The internship machine still needs credit to run. Colleges decide if, when, and how to dispense it.